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Prospects Report: Do the Pirates need a push?

Senior Fantasy Writer
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For the first time in 21 years, the Pirates had reason to celebrate last season.

But with accomplishment comes expectations, and when expectations aren't met in the world of professional sports, heads roll.

Whose heads exactly remains to be seen, but while general manager Neal Huntington's and manager Clint Hurdle's jobs are about as safe as it gets right now, what they accomplished last year has shifted the fan base's focus from the present to the future, for better or worse. A poor showing could quickly turn the tides against them.

Which makes the Pirates' sub-.500 record to begin the season especially troublesome.

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They can do only so much for the pitching staff. Ray Searage has already worked his magic on Edinson Volquez to give them a serviceable top four that also includes Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, but they just don't have the talent the Cardinals and Reds do. And the Brewers are making a case of their own with Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta.

No, the Pirates' best hope for distinguishing themselves is their starting lineup, which remains as top-heavy as ever with reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen leading the charge. Pedro Alvarez can hit some homers, and Neil Walker and Russell Martin certainly don't embarrass themselves relative to the positions they play. But particularly with Starling Marte scuffling to begin the season, the Pirates lineup isn't keeping anybody up at night.

What they need is another impact bat, and I'm not talking Ike Davis. I'm not talking anyone they could find on the trade market this time of year, but what's already right under their noses.

Through 18 games at Triple-A Indianapolis, prospect Gregory Polanco is hitting .419 (31 for 74) with three home runs, three triples, four doubles and three stolen bases.

Granted, it's a small sample, which is true for every player at every level this time of year, but when a prospect considered "on the verge" makes it look that easy at the highest level he can go, it usually means he's ready to graduate. It certainly did for Mike Trout in 2012, when he hit .403 (31 for 77) with one home run, five triples, four doubles and six stolen bases in 20 games at Triple-A Salt Lake.

Which isn't to say Polanco is as good as Trout. A player that good comes along once a generation. But Polanco is still about as high-end as prospects get, with Baseball America ranking him 10th overall, between Archie Bradley and Taijuan Walker (who are probably already owned in your league), coming into the season.

In terms of what he can do, he fits the mold of a Pirates outfield prospect perfectly, offering a skill set as well-rounded as McCutchen's and Marte's. But in terms of plate discipline and power potential, he comes closer to the former than the latter, making him worth stashing ahead of time.

Yeah, he's only 22, and you can't expect any 22-year-old to meet the full extent of his potential right away. But he's shown more in the minors than McCutchen did, and McCutchen arrived to hit .286 with 12 home runs 22 stolen bases and an .836 OPS in 108 games back in 2009.

In a worst-case scenario, Polanco's power takes a little longer to develop and he does about what Christian Yelich did after his arrival last year. But in a best-case scenario, he's too valuable to take out your lineup the rest of the way.

Of course, to deliver on any scenario, he'll need to arrive first, but that's where the Pirates' need to compete comes in. The biggest hole in their lineup happens to be the position Polanco plays at Triple-A, right field, where they're currently giving never-weres Travis Snider and Jose Tabata one last chance to prove they don't belong. Rebuilding teams like the Cubs can afford to be patient with reclamation projects, but the Pirates, with the expectations they've created for themselves, need to know when to cut bait.

And I have enough confidence in Huntington, with all the moves he's made to put his team in this position, to believe he does.

What's the argument against it? Yeah, Super 2 is on every general manager's mind, but it's a greater concern for those in rebuilding mode. As early as teams hand out long-term deals these days -- including the ones Huntington himself gave McCutchen and Marte -- it ends up being irrelevant much of the time. Trout and Bryce Harper arrived in late April two years ago to try to help their teams get over the hump, let's not forget. I can't help but see the parallels here.

And continuing with those parallels, I can't imagine a scenario, at least not in a five-outfielder league, where I couldn't find room for Polanco.

Five on the Farm ... by Michael Hurcomb (@CBSHurc), CBSSports.com

I can't help but think while watching Phillies third baseman Cody Asche struggle that it presents a perfect opportunity for the media to stir the pot and start conjuring up speculation about when highly touted prospect Maikel Franco will bump Asche from the starting lineup.

The only problem -- and it's a big one -- is that Franco hasn't given the media a reason to create controversy. As bad as Asche has been offensively, Franco has been equally as bad for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Franco is batting .134 with no home runs, two doubles and four RBI in 18 games, while Asche is batting .196 with one home run, two doubles and three RBI through 17 games.

So what's general manager Ruben Amaro's take on the struggles of both players?

"Kids, man," Amaro told reporters Monday. "It takes some time to adjust. They’re kids. You have to go through some growing pains with the kiddies. Everybody wants everybody to be an All-Star right away. It's not happening."

Amaro said the Phillies are going to give Asche "chances to play," but if Franco was hitting the cover off the ball, there would be plenty of debate of having him replace Asche. Though, it still could happen sooner than you think.

Amaro hinted Monday Franco isn't playing well because of the cold weather in Pennsylvania. Amaro alluded to a similar issue Franco endured when he played in New Jersey a few a years ago for Class A Lakewood. Franco hit .208 through the first 25 games before batting .297 over his final 107 games, per The Philadelphia Daily News.

The Phillies handed Asche the starting job this spring partly because of how well he performed defensively after his promotion to the majors last season. He's shown at times he's no slouch offensively, slugging .481 in 2012 and .485 at Triple-A last season before his promotion.

However, most folks would probably agree Franco has a higher ceiling, and Fantasy owners would much rather see him in the starting lineup than Asche. But as long as a Franco's offensive production matches the chilly weather in Pennsylvania, a media-fueled controversy is on hold.

Bubba Starling, OF, Royals
Affiliate: Class A Wilmington
2014 stats:.133/.284/.250/.534, one home run, four doubles, six RBI, eight runs, nine walks, 24 strikeouts and one stolen base in 17 games
After undergoing laser-eye surgery last May, Starling gave us hope with a strong second half last season that he was ready to turn the corner in his career. Unfortunately, concern is building again as he's off to a horrid start in 2014. It seems like yesterday the baseball world was buzzing about Starling being an all-world athlete coming out of high school and being billed as a future All-Star. While Starling's defensive skills have lived up to the hype, his offense has not. The Royals have tweaked Starling's stance on a few occasions, but they just can't seem to get his timing down and find a comfort level for the former top-100 prospect. It might not be time to throw in the towel just yet. Starling could just be off to a rough start. But his poor performance means he has some ground to make up or else it might be time for Fantasy owners to use that spot in long-term keeper leagues on someone else.

Joey Gallo, 3B, Rangers
Affiliate: Class A Myrtle Beach
2014 stats:.333/.421/.750/1.171, two triples, three doubles, six home runs, 16 RBI, 17 runs, 12 walks and 21 strikeouts in 18 games
There's no denying Gallo can hit the ball a country mile. All he's done since turning pro in 2012 has hit for power. He has totaled 68 home runs and has a .645 slugging percentage in 188 games. It seems he can't get to the majors fast enough with those power numbers. Still, Gallo has a hole in his swing that is very concerning to the scouts. His strikeout average is more than one per game and his long swing creates contact issues. Though, Gallo is batting .333 this season and has 12 walks in 18 games, so maybe he's starting to correct some of his flaws. Plenty of power hitters strike out a lot, but we just hope Gallo is more like Chris Davis, who is a high-end Fantasy option despite a high strikeout rate, and not Mark Reynolds, who is an all-or-nothing slugger. Slugger Paul Goldschmidt was promoted to the majors after just 2 1/2 seasons in the minors, but he had the advantage of being older and more polished out of college. Gallo was a high-school draftee, so it wouldn't be surprising if he doesn't even sniff the majors until next year.

Micah Johnson, 2B, White Sox
Affiliate: Double-A Birmingham
2014 stats:.343/.432/.500/.932, one triple, two home runs, three doubles, eight RBI, eight runs, 10 walks, 12 strikeouts and seven stolen bases in 18 games
Johnson wasn't expected to last as long as he did in major-league camp this spring, but the 23-year-old second baseman remained with the team until some of the final cuts. After a strong spring, Johnson has carried that momentum into the start of the season at Double-A Birmingham, leaving plenty to speculate about his arrival to the majors. Johnson, who underwent elbow surgery in October, had some defensive shortcomings he needs to shore up before getting the call to the majors, but it appeared he was making great strides in that area this spring. Last season, Marcus Semien and Erik Johnson both started the year in Double-A and made their MLB debuts later in the season for Chicago. However, both players did make a pit stop at Triple-A prior to their major-league debuts, which Johnson will likely do as well. But if he keeps producing at his current pace, then he could be at Triple-A by midseason, if not sooner. Fantasy owners are going to want to keep tabs on Johnson's progress because he could be the next great base stealer making his way to the majors.

Aaron Sanchez, SP, Blue Jays
Affiliate: Double-A New Hampshire
2014 stats:1-1, 2.29 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 18 strikeouts, 10 walks and one home run allowed in four starts (19 2/3 innings)
The scouts love to talk about Sanchez's potential as a frontline starter. They consider him to have a standout repertoire of pitches and they like his intelligence in game situations. Sanchez, who is considered the Blue Jays' top prospect by Baseball America, has had plenty of success in his career. He owns a 3.26 ERA and has a 9.2 K/9 rate through 275 2/3 innings. However, his weakness continues to be his control. The scouts are amazed Sanchez continues to be plagued by control issues despite his easy arm action. Sanchez might be able to get away with control problems in the minors, but major-league hitters make you pay. Just look at Indians starting pitcher prospect Trevor Bauer. Sanchez also has to work on staying healthy and getting his innings up in the minors. He's never thrown more than 90 1/3 innings in a season, so the Blue Jays probably won't bring him to the majors until he's ready to prove he can handle a large workload. Sanchez is a predominantly groundball pitcher. The upside comparison for Sanchez would be Justin Masterson, who is a groundball pitcher with a high strikeout rate. The polar opposite might be Tyler Chatwood, who is an effective groundball pitcher with a low strikeout rate.

Carlos Correa, SS, Astros
Affiliate: Class A Lancaster
2014 stats:.306/.361/.486/.848, two triples, two home runs, three doubles, 15 RBI, 12 runs, seven walks, 11 strikeouts and two stolen bases in 18 games
CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman reported last week that some scouts feel Correa is ready for the big leagues. It definitely took me by surprise since Correa is just 19 years old and has never played above Class A. His game is also still very raw, but it's quite evident to see he's progressing quickly. As my colleague Joe Polito pointed out, the Red Sox brought Xander Bogaerts to the majors at 20 years old in 2013, so age might not be a factor. Though, the Red Sox had a pressing need for Bogaerts, and he at least got some time above Class A before his promotion. Even though the Astros have already promoted George Springer and Jon Singleton isn't too far away from his MLB debut, the Astros are not built to contend this season and saving service time for Correa is going to be a factor in his promotion. There's no doubt Correa has good offensive skills, and it seems he's only getting better in the power categories. But he still remains more of a long-term Fantasy keeper than seasonal-league stashee.

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Player News
Marlins' Jose Fernandez throws off mound for first time since surgery
by Sean d'Oliveira | CBSSports.com
(10:51 am ET) Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez threw off a mound Sunday for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery last year, the team announced.

Fernandez threw 15 fastballs during the outing.


Rangers push back Derek Holland's start due to sorenes
by Sean d'Oliveira | CBSSports.com
(10:25 am ET) Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said the team pushed back Derek Holland's start due to normal soreness in his throwing shoulder, reports the Dallas Morning News.

Holland was scheduled to throw in Sunday's intrasquad game, but it will be pushed back to Monday as a precaution. Holland missed most of the 2014 season with a knee injury.

"I'm taking a day off," Holland said, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "No biggie."


Orioles' Paul Janish hopes to begin throwing by end of the week
by Sean d'Oliveira | CBSSports.com
(9:56 am ET) After having surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, Orioles shortstop Paul Janish hopes to begin throwing by the end of the week, reports CSNBaltimore.com.

Janish had the surgery in mid-February and was expected to miss six-to-eight weeks.


Yankees' Alex Rodriguez may play in spring training opener
by Sean d'Oliveira | CBSSports.com
(9:45 am ET) Yankees coach Joe Girardi said the team will decide Monday if Alex Rodriguez will play in Tuesday's spring training opener, reports the Associated Press.

Rodriguez is attempting to comeback after being suspended for the entire 2014 season and Girardi said the decision will be based on how Rodriguez is feeling.

"It's something I have to talk to him about," Girardi said. "See where he's at physically."


Blue Jays sign Dayan Viciedo to minor-league deal
by Sean d'Oliveira | CBSSports.com
(9:17 am ET) The Blue Jays signed outfielder Dayan Viciedo to a minor-league contract Sunday, the team announced.

The deal includes an invite to spring training. In 2014, Viciedo hit .231 with 21 home runs and 58 RBI.


Red Sox's Henry Owens impresses during camp
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(1:19 am ET) Red Sox pitcher Henry Owens impressed during batting practice recently, according to the Boston Herald

Owens hadn't faced big league hitters since last spring training, and had something to prove. While Owens didn't have great fastball command during the session, his changeup was spot on. 

"Great deception, hard to pick up," catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "He got me on the changeup today because you can’t see the spin. It looks just like his fastball. That’s a huge advantage."

Pitching coach Juan Nieves agreed, but said he wasn't sure whether Owens was ready for the majors just yet. "Is anybody ready to come to the big leagues?" Nieves said. "I don’t know. We don’t know until they get there and experience the competition."

The 22-year-old Owens enters the year as the team's second-best prospect according to Baseball America. He posted a 2.94 ERA over two minor-league levels last year. 


Brewers GM confident Jean Segura will bounce back
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Brewers general manager Doug Melvin expressed confidence Saturday that shortstop Jean Segura will bounce back after a subpar 2014 season, the Journal Sentinel reports.

"I'm pretty confident he's going to bounce back," Melvin said. "He had a very good September. He had a lot of stuff going on last year. But everybody says he's a much happier person and everything. He's a good, athletic player that we need."

After delivering a .294 average, smacking 12 home runs and stealing 44 bases in 2013, Segura hit just .246/.289/.326 with five home runs, 31 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 513 at-bats in 2014.


Brewers' Dontrelle Willis making a good impression in camp
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Brewers pitcher Dontrelle Willis has made a favorable impression during camp, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

In particular, Willis has impressed manager Ron Roenicke. "He's got a great attitude," Roenicke said. "The things he said are exactly what you want a player to say. He gets it." Willis has also made a strong impression on his new teammates.

Willis, 33, has not pitched in the majors since 2011. He's attempting to make a come back with the Brewers this spring. 


Blue Jays' Michael Saunders: 'No pain' day after surgery
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders said Saturday that he's feeling no pain one day after undergoing knee surgery, the Toronto Sun reports.

"I feel great," Saunders said. "I couldn’t believe it when I woke up this morning and I was walking around just fine. I walked out of surgery just fine. I actually started doing some exercises today and just got checked out by the doctor and he was pleasantly surprised with what he saw. There’s not as much swelling as he originally thought. Everything is checking out so far and everything is good news. No pain. It feels like I banged my knee on a pole and it’s a tiny bit swollen."

Saunders suffered a torn meniscus while tracking a foul ball Wednesday, tripping over a sprinkler head and hearing a popping sound. After initially being told he could need to have the meniscus repaired, a procedure that carries a recovery time of three-to-five months, Saunders had the torn portion of the meniscus removed, which places him on track to return to action within six weeks. While the outfielder is excited to be back on the field in a much shorter time, he indicated he'll be cautious with his rehab.

"I’m going to miss some spring training but it could be a lot worse," Saunders said. "My ligaments are intact. For me this is the best-case scenario. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I’m ready to go. I’d love to say that I’ll be ready opening day. That’s my goal. But we’re targeting more mid-April, on the safe side. At the end of the day I have to listen to my knee. It’s a long season. I’m going to get this right the first time and not rush back."


Athletics' Doolittle hoping to throw in a week or two
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(2/28/2015) Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle is hoping to be cleared to throw in a week or two, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Doolittle was able to participate in strength tests on Saturday, and the results were positive. He has not been cleared to throw just yet, but is hoping that will come shortly. Doolittle has been sidelined by a shoulder injury during the start of camp. 

The 28-year-old posted a 2.73 ERA over 62 2/3 innings last year. 


 
 
 
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